Student Researcher Breaks Barriers and Gives Back to Her Community
Along the path toward becoming a physician, Abby Morales discovered a passion for research. Morales considered attending medical school, but after she began conducting scientific research in Rutgers University–Camden campus labs, she was hooked.
“I grew very interested in understanding the chemistry behind certain reactions or certain interactions within a system,” said Morales, a Rutgers University in Camden Ph.D. student.
Morales began conducting research in the lab of David Salas-de la Cruz, associate professor of chemistry, during her junior year at LEAP Academy University Charter School as a participant in the American Chemistry Society SEED program. “I didn’t know I’d like it until I tried it,” said Morales, a Camden native who lived in Puerto Rico for several years as a child.
“For me to get to where I am, it started out as a dream,” Morales said.
With Salas-de la Cruz as her mentor, and as a Rutgers–Camden undergraduate and graduate student in chemistry, Morales was able to take on more challenging research supported by NASA’s New Jersey Space Grant Consortium and the National Science Foundation.
Currently, Morales is conducting research in Salas-de la Cruz’s lab to develop sustainable, lightweight, and durable building construction materials using natural substances from plants and animals. The materials could replace wood, concrete, and steel. The materials can be folded and formed for architectural and manufacturing use. As a roofing material, a section of the roof could automatically change its color from black to white, to alter the reflection of light and reduce the absorption of heat to cool the house during a heat wave.
The interdisciplinary project is supported by a five-year National Science Foundation grant involving researchers from Rutgers‒Camden, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Rowan University. The joint project offers Morales access to specialized equipment on all of the university campuses to expand her experience and learn about other disciplines by collaborating with experts in architectural and structural designs, chemistry, physics, materials science, biochemical and mechanical engineering, computation, and economics.
“Sometimes we have to do analysis by ourselves,” said Morales. “But we can always reach each other through messaging and say, ‘I need a second eye to look at this.’”
Morales enjoys conducting research that can make a difference in protecting the environment in the future. “Knowing that I am attempting to finding answers to today’s problems in advanced manufacturing and hoping to replace petroleum-based materials with renewable bio-friendly ones is exciting,” Morales said.
When Morales needs encouragement, there is a team of faculty and fellow students who are there to support her and tell her to believe in herself.
Morales’s academic success has made her a role model in her Camden community. Teachers, neighbors, and friends ask her to share with fellow Hispanics and first-generation college students how she became a scientist. Salas de-la Cruz believes that with the skills she’s learned at Rutgers–Camden, Morales can work in a lab or a classroom. He thinks she has what it takes to be a university professor one day.
When Morales’ academic work and research schedule slows down, she hopes to give back to the community by mentoring future scientists in Camden city schools, as she was mentored to develop a passion for the sciences.
“An early exposure to graduate research in chemistry and all of the other internships and opportunities I have had the privilege being a part of is what led me to decide my next step,” Morales said. “Early experiences allow you to figure out whether you like that specific track, and to carve your own path.”
Morales understands the importance of diversity and representation in the field; only 7.1% of the chemists in the United States are Hispanic.
“It’s wonderful that I get to do this not only for myself but for others around me,” said Morales, who hopes to work in a government lab one day. “My advice: Don’t be afraid to stand out. You will surprise yourself with how far you will get when you are determined to succeed no matter the odds.”
Creative Design: Karaamat Abdullah
Creative Design: Beatris Santos
Photography: Ron Downes Jr.